January 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 1

Access Issues

Good News from the Big Box Store: Accessibility Features for Laundry and Kitchen Appliances Improve

Two separate events over the course of a week provoked me to make a speedy trip to several area "big box" stores. The quest was to ferret out the truth about appliance control accessibility. The events were a series of TV ads trumpeting Whirlpool's most advanced laundry equipment ever, and a call from a colleague who had been told that the latest laundry equipment from the same appliance behemoth no longer had accessibility features.

In the case of the Whirlpool TV commercials, a translation of the TV hype into simple English included terms such as "touch screen." And, as to my colleague's concerns, a follow-up call to Whirlpool led to a representative who stated that the musical tones that signaled cycle options were a thing of the past.

Whirlpool Keeps the Faith with Blind and Visually Impaired Customers

Despite the advertising red flags and my colleague's report, it appears that, with only one exception, not only have Whirlpool Duet washers and dryers maintained their accessibility features, they have been enhanced. The complexity of the modern front-loading washer and dryer results in control panels on which a dozen or more separate buttons are common. Tracking as many as seven variables can be mind-bogglingly difficult because each time a control is changed, several or all of the other controls values change. With Whirlpool Duet equipment, separate tones, something like musical notes, indicate which value has been chosen. The physical controls also offer easy-to-feel pointers for making primary cycle selections.

The enhancements include a more solid-feeling control panel that arranges selection buttons in easy-to-feel rows. An easily distinguished, rectangular "start" control beside the large, round cycle selector with its physical pointer round out the front panel control section. The tones that accompany settings changes are easier to hear and more musical than in earlier Duet equipment.

Whirlpool has not limited accessibility enhancements to the laundry room. Both ranges and wall ovens that have flat touch-panel controls have received much textured touch pads at the locations where controls are placed. Although AccessWorld has applauded these controls in the past, we have noted that they are rather subtle, resembling small pieces of adhesive tape on a glass window. The latest controls are not quite as textured as the finest grade of sandpaper, but they are decidedly easier to feel.

I examined two offerings in the Whirlpool Gold line of electric, smooth-top ranges. One, which has a double oven, uses a complex touch panel with every imaginable control option available on a modern stove. The sizes of the textured regions were small for some of the options, but still, each was well defined and identifiable. This is the most comprehensive control panel that uses a textured approach to accessibility that we are aware of.

A less elaborate single-oven model and a wall oven offer between 10 and 12 controls. The primary buttons, "start" and "clear," are larger than in earlier models.

Whirlpool dishwashers have always been on the top of AFB's accessibility list, and they remain so. Both concealed and front-facing control panels are offered. All use very easy-to-feel bubble-like controls.

Sears Kenmore Makes Modest Accessibility Advances

For several years, the accessibility news from the Sears appliance department has been decidedly bleak. As the nation's largest appliance brand (according to Sears), we expect better from Kenmore. Whereas laundry equipment, now manufactured by the Korean company LG, is decidedly inaccessible, some dishwashers and refrigerators have improved usability.

Dishwashers in the Kenmore line offer a wide variety of styles. After examining more than a dozen on display, it occurred to me that the door designs take many cues from other brands (e.g., a Kenmore that resembles a Bosch). Similarly, accessibility varies dramatically depending on the particulars of the door design. Generally, concealed, rough-on-smooth or smooth-on-rough touch controls are well represented.

Refrigerators have not escaped the trend toward the high-tech. Digital temperature readouts and status reports are the norm. Separate controls allow one to set refrigerator and freezer temperatures independently of each other. Many Kenmore models I examined feature easy-to-feel buttons arranged in two side-by-side configurations for the refrigerator and freezer, respectively. As the buttons are pressed, a clear beep is heard. Each beep is one degree up or down.

Frigidaire Laundry Equipment is Feeling Groovy

Frigidaire's laundry equipment has been one of those brands that uses a kind of endlessly turning control to make primary cycle settings. Turn the machine on, and a light beside the selected cycle changes as the control is turned. The latest offerings from Frigidaire now use a very distinct groove molded into the outer surface of the large circular control. As with the traditional washer and dryer controls of yesterday, each cycle is associated with a physical pointer location on the face of the appliance. Marks can be placed at cycles or other locations to provide cues for nonvisual use.

Other Brands Maintain Useable Controls

All too often, an appliance that is very usable becomes popular among blind and visually impaired customers, only to disappear like yesterday's fashions. Happily, this trend appears to be diminishing, at least for the time being, insofar as usability is concerned.

KitchenAid dishwashers have been running hot and very cold as far as non-visual accessibility is concerned. For the current generation of these well-regarded dishwashers, the flirtation with totally smooth controls appears to have ended. The textured concealed and front-facing controls are subtle, and may not be convenient for everyone. Nevertheless the tactile characteristics would appear to be something that KitchenAid is retaining.

Bosch introduced remarkably easy-to-feel controls in last year's laundry models. These washers and dryers employ traditional turn knobs. Like KitchenAid, Bosch has retained the same controls in its current laundry offerings.

Let the Buyer Beware

As mentioned above, a colleague who is very knowledgeable in matters of accessibility had a discomforting experience when attempting to identify and purchase non-visually accessible laundry appliances. A sales associate in the appliance department of a major home improvement center was uncertain about the behavior of the controls in the generation of Whirlpool washers and dryers that are now being sold. He was unable to connect the washer to an outlet, because to do so would have required unbolting the shipping bolts. A call to Whirlpool was a reasonable next step, given the situation. It was at this point that things went off the track. According to the Whirlpool representative, no tones that would differentiate the cycles were to be found on these machines. This statement is not true. Unfortunately, neither my colleague nor the associate had any practical way of making a direct observation, or any reason to doubt the Whirlpool representative. As a result, a Bosch laundry pair was purchased.

As AccessWorld readers may recall, we strongly encourage putting your hands and ears on the controls of the appliance you are going to purchase. In the case of laundry equipment, a washer and dryer will share control characteristics. Because the dryer can not be easily connected in the show room, exploring the operation of the washing machine counterpart can predict the behavior of the dryer.

For stoves, a similar situation will be encountered as electric ranges and ovens require a power source that is not commonly available in the show room. Again, a gas model, which can be plugged in easily using an extension cord, will provide an example of the control behavior of an electric appliance that shares the same controls.

In order to confirm the similarity of a brand's models, for the purpose of making accessibility decisions, a knowledgeable salesperson will be able to make comparisons using model numbers. Manufacturers offer lines of appliances, all of which have many common characteristics.

Speaking of sales personnel, identifying and relying on a knowledgeable sales professional is perhaps the single most important factor in ending up with appliances you enjoy using. When I began my shopping trip at Lowe's, I was fortunate to have a sales associate named Danny and his colleagues in the appliance department. Were it not for their patience as I manipulated controls and asked questions, gathering data to share with you would have been far more difficult. His willingness to climb behind a new washing machine model to plug it in for me, take my calls with follow-up questions about controls, and generally go out of his way to lend a hand, made this mission that much more effective.

Ask friends and family in your area about their shopping experiences in your community. Both positive and negative responses can guide you to a good vendor. National and local consumer organizations offer a quick connection to others who may be able to provide information. Listservs and other online resources may also be of use.

Once you are in the store, be clear about your needs and expectations. For some associates, assisting customers for whom accessibility is important may be handled in stride. For others, your particular requirements may throw them off balance to the extent that they are simply unable to be of assistance. Taking the direct route can move things along quickly if you draw the short straw. A simple statement such as "You seem to be uncomfortable with my blindness. I would like to work with a different associate, please" is both clear and allows the less capable individual to bow out.

I have encountered dozens of associates, many of whom fell into one of the categories above. For those in the middle, a bit of education may rescue a bad situation. If you can find any appliance that has controls you think are usable, pointing out what makes them work for you may help the associate to recognize similar controls on other models. This is especially true if you are interested in ordering a product that is not on display. Remember, even the largest department will have only a fraction of the total product line from a manufacturer.

Online information may be helpful. Major sites such as AJ Madison have some narrative that can provide a useful description. Unfortunately, I was not able to make a determination about a GE wall oven's controls when using the site with an experienced reader who knows about accessibility and had seen the GE oven in person the previous day. At the same time, several sales associates at Sears were able to make observations about the differences or similarities of controls once an understanding had been reached. The relatively comprehensive selection at Sears was useful as it was possible to identify an accessible set of controls from the manufacturer for purposes of comparison.

Despite all of your research and best efforts to select an accessible appliance, it is possible that unpacking the new washer or stove may reveal a dud. Ensuring that the store or online retailer has a 100% money back policy is absolutely imperative. Restocking fees of as much as 15 percent of the purchase price are not unheard of. A store credit refund policy is also not unheard of. Not refunding all of your money or leaving you stuck with hundreds or thousands of dollars in store credits at an establishment with which you absolutely do not want to do business would add insult to injury.

Clearly, exceptions are to be found. Outlet centers, the damaged/returned goods section of a big box store, or a scratch and dent sale offer some outstanding opportunities to save on these large-ticket purchases. It is worth noting that some of the most accessible appliances I have encountered were found at a Sears outlet store. The warehouse-like arrangement made it very simple to connect any gas range or washer to an extension cord to test the controls. A willing and surprisingly knowledgeable sales staff rounded out the picture.

Identifying accessible and useable appliances is an ongoing project at AccessWorld. Tracking this moving target means that we are constantly browsing appliance departments and sorting through manufacturer literature. We also value your experiences. For both non-visual access and low-vision use, we rely on your feedback. We do not have all the answers and trust that you will take time to share your experiences with us.

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